Thursday, December 24, 2009

Then Came the Grinch

Two days before Christmas, and we were immersed in the Wednesday deadline at the newspaper, having eaten our fill of chocolates and cookies, when the phone rang. I happpened to miss it - I had stepped outside for a quick smoke. But when I sat down at my desk, I heard my boss Pat say, "Well, I guess I better go home and help Ramona deal with this." And she headed out the door.

After working together for nearly eight years, we all know each other (and each other's partners) pretty well. I was fairly confident that I knew what that tone in Pat's voice meant. "Are the dogs out again?" (Ramona, not being a huge dog fan, always calls for back-up when Grace and Skeeter pull a Houdini and disappear over the back fence.)

I was completely unprepared for Kim's reply: "No, she had to go home because someone stole their van."

What? Someone stole their Honda mini-van? Yep. It was gone. They had parked the van in their own driveway, which is on a quiet cul-de-sac in Calistoga. As is their frequent habit, after years of small-town living, they had left the keys sitting in the console, because Ramona needed to move it in the not-to-far-off future.

And someone had just come along, opened the door, inserted the keys, and driven off. Merry Christmas.

Although stunned to hear the news, part of me is surprised that this doesn't happen more often here. Having lived in large cities for much of my adult life, I am always amused by the low security standards of small town citizens. Almost no one in Calistoga locks their cars; many leave their keys in the console or under the floor mats. And at least weekly, I see an idling, empty car parked in front of the post office, its driver checking his P.O. box inside the building without wanting to bother with shutting the engine off.

I still lock my doors. And I clean out the car every time I arrive at my destination. If I must leave something in the car, valuable or not, I put it in the trunk, out of sight. In my old neighborhood in San Francisco, on 16th and Capp Street in the Mission, even leaving a single cigarette on the dashboard was an invitation for a break-in. Just like learning to walk the streets at night, making yourself an unattractive "customer" for thieves is part of urban survival.

Last summer Calistoga had a rash of car burglaries. People kept calling up the police station and saying, "Someone stole my designer purse (or my laptop, or my cell phone)." When asking for details, the police found that almost without exception, the items had been left in plain view in an unlocked car.

I wouldn't say anybody deserves what they get, but, come on, now! Maybe work a little bit at making it harder for the bad guys?

That said, I still feel pretty awful about poor Pat and Ramona. Because it's not the stolen van that they're broken up about. The rear of the car was loaded up with all of their camping equipment: old Girl Scout cookware, plastic plates made by their son and nieces and nephews, the air mattress they've been using for short, memories. That's what was stolen.

And what about the thief? Of course, the things in the van will mean nothing to him. The van itself might be simply a convenient solution to a temporary transportation problem, soon to be abandoned somewhere by the side of the road.

Theft is such a heartless act. Taking what is not yours - yes, it's wrong. But beyond that, look at the consequences for the victims: shattered trust, loss, anger, inconvenience, financial hardship, interrupted lives. For what? Easy money? A thrill? I would make a rotten criminal. The karmic burden would be so heavy I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning.

Keep your eyes out for a white Honda mini-van with a license plate frame that reads: "I'd rather be in Calistoga." She'd love to be home for Christmas.

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